The complicated history of Korean war criminals

Posted on : 2007-03-14 15:19 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST

After their victory in World War II, the Allied nations established tribunals for the purpose of administering justice to those who had committed war crimes. Under the ordinances of the tribunals, three separate classifications of war criminals were assigned: classes A, B, and C. The first group was said to have committed crimes against the peace, the second to have perpetrated "typical" war crimes such as the abuse of prisoners, and the third to have inflicted crimes against humanity.

Class A war criminals were leaders directly involved in the plotting of the war, and class B and C war criminals were those officers and soldiers who violated the laws and customs of war designed to protect humanity. Class A war criminals were tried and punished by tribunals in Tokyo and Nuhrenburg, and class B and C war criminals were tried and sentenced in one of the seven allied nations according to the laws of that nation.

After the war’s end, some 5,700 were punished as class B or C war criminals, and among these, 984 suffered the death penalty. There were 148 Koreans among those convicted, 129 of whom had been forcefully abducted from their homeland by the Japanese and given the task of overseeing POWs. Hong Sa-ik was unique among the group of Korean class B/C war criminals in that he attained a position of leadership within the Japanese military, the rank of lieutenant general, after graduating from a Japanese military academy. Deployed to a prisoner detention camp in the Philippines, he would ultimately come before the tribunal and meet his end on the gallows.

After liberation, the Korean class B and C war criminals silently endured the indifference of the Korean government as well as discrimination from the Japanese based on their ethnicity. After years of detention in prisons throughout Southeast Asia, they were moved to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo in August 1950. In the following years, they were released one by one, and from that point a new struggle began. Most would reclaim their Korean citizenship under the terms of the 28 April 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty. As the subjects of punishment described under the Peace Treaty were limited to those carrying Japanese nationality, those still imprisoned in 1952 grew hopeful for their immediate release. Yet the Japanese government maintained that since the imprisoned Koreans were Japanese citizens when sentenced, they still had to carry out their full terms. This position was confirmed in turn by the Japanese Supreme Court.

Even upon release, however, the convicted war criminals were left in a difficult position. Though Japan enforced the prisoners’ Japanese citizenship during their prison term, the newly freed men were not given the according financial support afforded to other veterans of the Imperial Army. "It's absurd," lamented the director of the Committee for Reparation to Victims of the Pacific War. "They were punished for being Japanese, but were rejected aid for not being Japanese." The war criminals were also denounced in Korea as pro-Japanese collaborators. Upon liberation, most were in their mid 30s. Succumbing to depression, two committed suicide.

Yet the remainder did not lose hope, despite the bitter tribulations that would come. The convicted war criminals united to form a group in the hopes of living well through mutual assistance. In 1960, the group, named Dongjinhoe (moving forward together), jointly formed a taxi company in Japan to secure their livelihood. Though they demanded compensation from the Japanese government beginning in 1956, their appeals fell on deaf ears, and the Japanese government declared their claims void under the terms of the 1965 treaty normalizing relations between South Korea and Japan.

In the face of Japanese obstinacy, the group decided to take legal measures. Their lawsuit, filed on 12 November 1991 in the Tokyo District Court, lasted for five years. On September 9, 1996, the court ruled, "It is necessary that [Japan] devise a means of support toward those soldiers and their survivors who served Japan," thus admitting the need for reparations. Yet, classifying such reparations as "an issue for legislative policy," the court dismissed the case. The trial in effect threw the ball into the Japanese Diet’s court. The same ruling was subsequently maintained throughout two subsequent sets of appeals, including one made to the Supreme Court.

Though more than seven years have passed since the Japanese Supreme Court on December 20, 1999 upheld the lower court’s ruling, there have been no moves by the Diet to assist the Korean class B and C war criminals or their survivors. In May of 2006, South Korea’s Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism acknowledged convicted class B and C war criminals as being victims of Japanese forced conscription. On February 25, Dongjinhoe opened a branch in Korea for those who had returned home, as well as for their families.

"All that remains," said Dongjinhoe chairman Lee Hak-rae, "is an apology and reparation payments from the Japanese government." Together with the survivors of other convicted B and C class war criminals, Lee appealed to the Korean National Assembly on 26 February for the "South Korean government and Assembly to apply pressure on the Japanese Diet," suggesting that it do so at the biannual Korea-Japan Parliamentarian Union conference.

Professor Utsumi Aiko, who researches the issue of Korean class B and C war criminals at Keisen University in Tokyo, said that "in order to pressure the Japanese government, it is necessary that the Korean public carries at least a small interest in the matter."

By Gil Hyeong-yun
Translated by Daniel Rakove

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